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Early on, I was interested in explaining the physical world on a molecular level. When I was in eleventh grade, my high school in Berlin, Germany, made the courageous decision to hand the pedagogical reins for the last three days of the school year to the students. Students were encouraged to offer their fellow students classes of their own design, with the assistance of the faculty. Together with a friend of mine, we designed an introductory course of physical, chemical, and biological evolution: from the Big Bang to Homo sapiens. We were surprised by how many people signed up for the class and were breathlessly teaching our hearts out for three straight days.
This early experience of the joys of teaching has never left me, and I decided to start studying Biochemistry at the Free University in Berlin. Intrigued by the international nature of scientific collaboration and discovery, I also spent time in labs in Israel, the UK, and the US, where I eventually did my graduate work.
When I thought about what research I would like to do for my PhD work, I gave in to my fascination of cellular machines and their molecular mechanism. I joined Tom Rapoport’s lab in the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, where I worked on the mechanism of protein integration into the ER membrane. We suggested a unifying, lipid-partitioning model, which can explain in great detail how the protein-conducting channel Sec61 recognizes transmembrane segments, orients them properly with respect to the plane of the membrane and releases them into lipid. Additionally, we determined the architecture of the native ribosome-Sec61 channel complex by electron cryo-microscopy.
After investigating membrane protein integration as part of protein folding, I was attracted to more unconventional protein folding events. For my postdoctoral work I joined Susan Lindquist’s lab at MIT that studies prions. Prion proteins can adopt such an unconventional (amyloid) fold, which can be detrimental to the cell and disease-causing for the organism. It came as a surprise that this same prion fold can also carry out beneficial biological functions in the cell. I examined how a protein involved in learning and memory takes advantage of a regulatable prion switch to create a long-lasting molecular memory.
While I greatly appreciated the intellectual puzzle and detective work that scientific research can be, I always enjoyed communicating my research, which is such an important part of science. During my time as a teaching fellow for Life Sciences 1a (LS1a) and LS1b, I was thrilled to realize how rewarding teaching students is, especially when you can literally hear the “click” in a student’s brain after understanding an important concept.
Together with Aaron Garner, I work as a preceptor for LS1a, which aims to integrate chemistry and biology in a highly accessible, logical, engaging, and almost intuitive way. The teaching philosophy and design of LS1a exemplify to me how basic science should be taught to generate most enthusiasm in our students and fuel their fascination of how the physical world can be explained.
I wish I could have taken LS1a as a student.
Outside of work, I mainly design treasure hunts for my two daughters.